1. Home
  2. »
  3. College Resource Center
  4. »
  5. Military and college

Attending College While
in the Military

An In-Depth Guide to the Advantages of Going to College While Serving

Today’s military branches know the value of education and as a result have taken steps to assist with getting and paying for a post-secondary education while still serving one’s country. This guide details the realities of going to school while serving, enrollment options, sources of financial aid only available to military members, and a select list of resources that are helpful if considering or currently going to school while a member of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Expert

Writer

Myth Busters: College for Active and Reserve Military Members

Since being in the military is a full-time job and requires a high level of commitment, there tend to be many misconceptions surrounding attending school while serving in the military. Learn about some of these myths and their realities below.

Reality: All the military branches value education and make it easy to fund a post-secondary education while serving. Between Tuition Assistance, Tuition Assistance Top-Up and the GI Bill, much of a college education is paid for while serving.

Reality: Most of the accredited brick and mortar campuses today also offer online programs. Many of their online programs mirror their on-campus offerings and require as much work (and in some cases, more) than do the traditional programs.

Reality: Many military members continue to work on their post-secondary education while serving, even when deployed. If in an online program, all that is required is an Internet connection and a laptop computer. In all but a few of the most remote places, Internet access is available. Because there is a lot of downtime when deployed, many military members use that time to work on getting a degree.

Reality: Many schools now have designated faculty and departments to work with active military members, which can help students succeed. To help with success rates, it’s a good idea for students to choose a military-friendly college while implementing their own study skills and personal motivation.

Reality: Both the Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty and the Post 9/11 GI Bill can be used while still serving after two years of service either alone or as part of the Top-Up program. However, in most cases, it is better to first use Tuition Assistance, Top-Up second and the GI Bills last.

Enrollment Options for Active Duty and Reserve Members

Military members have more post-secondary education options available to them than ever before in the history of the military. Three of the main ones are: on-base, satellite and online. Each type has its own pros and cons, which must be considered carefully when choosing an enrollment option. The choice made can in part be driven by stationing location, time availability and desired degree major.

Options for Education

Paying for College as Active Military

With the military’s dedication to education, active duty members have several different types of financial aid available, making out-of-pocket costs minimal. The four most common types to help pay for an education are: Tuition Assistance, Tuition Assistance Top-Up, the GI Bill, and scholarships and grants.

Tuition Assistance (TA)

Each military branch offers its members TA so they can work on their post-secondary education while serving without having to pay for it themselves. However, each branch manages their TA program just a little differently. Below is more information about the TA program and the differences between the branches.

TA is available to eligible members serving on active duty in all five branches of the Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Most branches also include Reserve members and National Guard personnel serving on active duty for 120 days or more, however, eligibility ceases once off active duty.

Because the money used to pay a military member’s tuition does not come out of that individual’s GI Bill, it preserves GI Bill benefits that can be used toward Tuition Assistance Top-Up while serving, for an advanced degree after serving, or in the case of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, a transfer of benefits to a dependent family member while still serving.

Under the TA program, the student’s military branch falling under the DOD pays 100 percent of the tuition up to the maximum amount, along with most fees, directly to the school. Because the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security and not the DOD, their payment guidelines are different. They can only pay up to 75% of tuition and only lab fees.

Applying for TA varies between the various branches. However, in each branch, it starts with an application of some sort. All branches but the Coast Guard use some type of online application process:

Because the TA program is a Department of Defense initiative, it lays out the general guidelines of the program. However, each military branch within the DOD has flexibility on how it chooses to administer its own TA program within the DOD framework.

  • Army – Pays up to $250 per semester credit hour (with an annual fiscal year limit of 16 semester credit hours) or $166 per quarter credit hour; has an annual cap of $4,500. It covers tuition and certain fees like lab, enrollment, computer and some special fees. Current Army Policy limits lifetime TA to 130 semester hours for an undergraduate degree and an additional 39 hours for a graduate degree.

  • Navy – Pays up to $250 per semester credit hour (with an annual fiscal year limit of 16 semester credit hours) or $166 per quarter credit hour; has an annual cap of $4,500. However, it covers only tuition up through the master’s degree level.

  • Marines – Pays up to $250 per semester credit hour or $166 per quarter credit hour; has an annual cap of $4,500. TA authorized through the master’s degree level.

  • Air Force – Pays up to $250 per semester credit hour or $166 per quarter credit hour; has an annual cap of $4,500. Covers tuition, lab fees, enrollment fees, special fees and computer fees. Included in their TA program are academic or technical courses taken from two or four-year institutions on base, off base or by correspondence.

  • Coast Guard – Pays up to $187.50 per semester credit hour with an annual cap of $3,375. Covers tuition and lab fees only and is only authorized for the first degree.

Tuition Assistance Top-Up

Students whose tuition costs more than the credit hour limit, or those reaching their annual cap early in the academic year, can opt to use the Top-Up program.

Program Guidelines
  • Student’s military branch pays the total amount of tuition.

  • Bills go to the VA for the amount over the per credit hour or annual limit cap.

  • The VA reimburses the military branch for the amount billed, deducting entitlement from the student’s GI Bill.

However, the amount deducted depends on the GI Bill used. In the case of the Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty (MGIB-AD), one month of entitlement is deducted for each $1,928 paid out. If using the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the term duration is deducted regardless of the amount paid out. In the case of a semester, that is usually four months’ worth of entitlement.

GI Bill

Learn about what types of training are covered, how much each one pays, and more on who is eligible to use each type of GI Bill below.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

Even though the GI Bill benefits available today are the most generous ever offered, sometimes they are still not enough, especially if paying out-of-state tuition or attending a private or foreign school. The good news is there are many different scholarships and grants available just to military members. Click below to see what funding options are available to help pay for a college education.

Additional Resources

Active duty members have many education resources available to them to help make their decision to go to school while serving, and the type of venue and school. Below are ten varied resources to make the decision a smarter choice:

  • American Council of Education – A guide on how to transfer military training into college credits. Not only does this save time getting a degree, but also conserves GI Bill resources.

  • Choosing a School Guide – A helpful guide that talks about types of degrees and schools, benefits of getting an education and how to choose a degree major.

  • College Navigator – A detailed school search program, along with good information on financial aid, preparing for college and other education-related topics.

  • DANTES – Being able to test out of certain classes and get credit for the course without taking it is a great way to not only save GI Bill entitlement but also time to a degree.

  • Joint Services Transcripts – Receive a description of military education and work history for civilian employers and academic advisors.

  • GI Bill Comparison Tool – By selecting data from each drop-down menu – military status, GI Bill, length of service, venue and city/school – search results are returned that let individuals compare schools to see which ones would be best based on their selections.

  • Montgomery GI Bill – Active Duty (MGIB-AD) – Learn about MGIB eligibility, types of assistance and how to apply.

  • Post 9/11 GI Bill – Explore the pros and cons associated with using this type of GI Bill while actively serving in the military.

  • Yellow Ribbon Program – This page explains the personal and academic benefits and eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program.

  • Yellow Ribbon Schools – Explore institutions that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program to maximize program benefits.

Expert Interview

SGT Mackenzie Kerska is 25 years old and has served in the Minnesota Army National Guard for seven years. She is currently on active duty and deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as part of a joint task force.

Kerska has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a concentration in Criminal Justice. While deployed, she is currently enrolled in a master’ degree program at American Military University studying Homeland Security with a concentration in Counterterrorism.

When not deployed, she works as a Community Corrections Specialist in an County Electronic Home Monitoring House Arrest Unit.

Below are four questions that were posed to our expert. Her answers and views are very enlightening:

Q: What is the most challenging part about attending college while serving in the military?

A: While serving on active duty and going to school, it can be as though you have two different jobs. I am in the National Guard so when I am not deployed, it is like having three different jobs: going to school, working a civilian job and attending National Guard weekend drills and Annual Training.

Right now, I am on active duty deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for a Detention Operations Deployment. Here, time is a scarce commodity between shift work and being assigned to work details that must be done on days offs. As an NCO, I also have leadership responsibilities and military paperwork that must be submitted, such as periodic counseling of my subordinates, and mandatory attendance of military online classes. This is when knowing time management is a key.

Also, being here in Cuba, going to school online is a challenge because the Internet amenities are not always the greatest. You have to catch a good day when the power is not out or Internet is not down.

Even with the technological challenges of being deployed here, going to school online is the best option for me. I am attending American Military University and as a military student, they are very easy to work with as far as making adjustments for us if an emergency comes up.

Q: What are some tips for student success while trying to balance serving with getting an education?

A: Picking a military-friendly school is the number one suggestion I would make. They understand your hardships better and are more willing to work with you when new situations quickly arise.

I prefer online because I can go at my own pace. I have the luxury of staying in the comfort of my own surroundings while working on school work instead of having to drag myself to class. Another tip is to start school as soon as you can or you will continue to find ways to avoid starting.

Education is a great asset and with options for online and a wide range of degrees, everyone can find something. It also helps you stay involved and motivated.

During this deployment, I was glad I enrolled and started my master’s degree. It helps me clear my mind after working shift work and gives me a focus on something I’m interested in doing.

Another great way to be successful is find other soldiers/friends to enroll with you. Study groups are great. I had two soldiers enroll with me at AMU and we all help each other on our free time. It makes homework more fun, has created meaningful debates among us, and helps motivates each of us to do our best at getting good grades.

Q: What is your recommendation for funding a degree while actively serving?

A: Use all educational resources available to you. There are VA reps out there that can walk you through the whole process and find all the benefits authorized to you. In my home state of Minnesota, we have state tuition reimbursement that I used, along with GoArmy Tuition Assistance for my bachelor’s degree.

GoArmy is very easy to use and great when it comes to TA. There are so many options one can use without taking out student loans. I had my whole bachelor’s degree paid for and I am hoping that will be the case for my master’s degree.

Q: How is it different for active military vs reserve members?

A: The only difference I know of is the Post 9/11 GI Bill. For National Guard members and Reservists, it is based on your deployments. After so many days of being deployed, the percentage of coverage goes up, but it takes several deployments to get to 100%. That part is the same for active duty, but since you are always on active duty, it is easy to get to 100% coverage with three or more years of service.

Both reservists and active duty personnel use TA through GoArmy. It is a great source of money that is easy to use. It gives you money up front and at the end of the semester, you turn in your grades; to avoid having to pay money back, ensure you get at least a grade of C or better.